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Surveying shows NZ trusts scientists – Expert Reaction

Countries with higher levels of trust in scientists have better support for Covid-19 measures, an international survey finds.

New Zealanders had the highest trust in scientists out of the 12 countries surveyed, including the US, UK, and Australia.

The SMC asked experts to comment on the research. 

Dr Jagadish Thaker, Senior Lecturer, School of Communication, Journalism & Marketing – Te Pou Aro Korero, Massey University, comments:

“The New Zealand public has the highest levels of trust in scientists, government, and in fellow Kiwis, among 12 countries surveyed between March and December 2020. Trust in scientists is one of the most strongly associated factors with support for and compliance with COVID-19 preventive behaviours and willingness to get a COVID-19 vaccine, in New Zealand and other countries. While trust in government is generally associated with compliance, in some countries where the government representatives spoke against public health measures such as the Presidents of US and Brazil, trust in government was associated with lesser compliance.

“The research also reported an experiment: In New Zealand, respondents were more likely to agree to wear a mask at home to fight the coronavirus epidemic if the recommendation was from the World Health Organization than from the Prime Minister. However, Nobel Laureates in medicine recommending such a measure had no difference when compared to a similar recommendation by the Prime Minister, indicating a greater trust in institutions than individuals.

“The findings of this study have important implications for science and society. Scientific independence is critical for giving objective advice the government and for continuing to enjoy public trust. In countries such as Brazil, Italy, France, and Poland, trust in scientists decreased over the pandemic, with more people perceiving that scientists are likely to hide information. Sometimes, initial public distrust toward the government may fuel distrust with what may be perceived as scientific ‘elite.’

“The findings of the this study align with previous research in New Zealand that trust in health experts and in the government was key to beat Covid-19. Similarly, trust in health experts was associated with willingness to get a COVID-19 vaccination.

“In times of crisis, we look to trusted sources for information and advice. But that trust also depends on the competency of the people and institutions to respond to a crisis. Ensuring high levels of trust in scientists and the government is the key to enjoy sustained public support and enthusiasm to follow COVID-19 safety behaviours.”

No conflict of interest. 

Dr Suzanne Manning, Social Systems Team, ESR, comments:

“Over 2020, Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions (NPIs) such as social distancing, border controls and an emphasis on strict personal hygiene have been effective for eliminating not only COVID-19 but also influenza outbreaks. NPIs are most effective when well supported by the public. This paper shows that internationally, support for NPIs is higher when there is high trust in scientists, a pattern reinforced when there is trust in both scientists and government and when the advice from both sources is independent but aligned. These findings suggest that New Zealanders have benefited greatly from the approach taken by our government to align their pandemic response with independent scientific advice.

“The paper does not break down any results by ethnic or socio-economic groups, and therefore we can’t tell if there are different levels of trust, and associated support for NPIs, between different sub-population groups. This would be useful to investigate, given the criticism that the burdens of the pandemic response disproportionately fell on those in lower socio-economic groups, as well as on Māori and Pacific peoples. For NPIs and the elimination strategy to work effectively, the whole team of 5 million needs to trust that they will be treated equitably.”

Conflict of interest statement: ESR is involved in providing advice to the government for the COVID-19 pandemic response. 

Professor Marc Wilson, School of Psychology, Acting Dean, Faculty of Science, Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“This report details the results of quite large-scale surveys (e.g., 4000 New Zealanders) conducted longitudinally between March 2020 and December 2020. They show that trust of scientists is generally quite high, regardless of the country (84% of people say they trust scientists) while trust in government is, well, notably lower (49% across nations). Among other things, New Zealanders reported the highest levels of trust in scientists. Though anyone with an unhealthy addiction to TV news would likely think that the US would score lowest on trust in scientists this was not the case – the US sat in the middle of the pack, ahead of France, Brazil and Poland.

“In our own research (surveys of more than 6000 New Zealanders, and 600 Americans) we find that New Zealanders are both slightly more trusting of scientists (consistent with this study), and more scientifically literate, than Americans. However, we find that the things that predict trust in scientists differ in strength: Distrust in scientists is significantly more strongly associated with politically conservative attitudes and religion in the US, than in New Zealand.

“This suggests that one of the reasons for the differences we see in trust in the French study is due to the politicisation (and to a lesser extent the ‘religiousisation’) of science. Additionally, religion in New Zealand isn’t as strongly tied to politics in the way that it is in the US (regardless of the separation of Church and State). In the US, around 50% of the population agree with the idea of evolution, and 50-60% endorse climate change. In New Zealand, evolution satisfies around 80% (we’re less religious) and 60-70% of New Zealanders agree with climate change (we have a less polarised political landscape).

“In other research, drawn from the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Survey led out of Auckland University we found that not only did New Zealanders appear to suffer fewer psychological side effects of the March 2020 lockdown, but that our trust in institutions remained relatively high throughout – in fact trust in both scientists and our politicians. My interpretation is, in part, that we benefited from an unambiguous lockdown (less uncertainty than many nations regarding extent and duration), and trusted our medical, scientific and governmental experts that this was the right thing.”

No conflict of interest.

Professor James Liu, School of Psychology, Massey University, comments:

“Yann Algan and colleagues present data from twelve democracies, mainly in the Western world (the only majority world country in their sample is Brazil) showing that trust in scientists is correlated with self-reported compliance towards public interventions to try to reduce the spread of COVID-19. This study is survey rather than behavioral research, and so it is more about attitudes predicting attitudes rather than attitudes predicting behavior. All data is based on self-report, and while the study is a panel study over a 9 month period, it is not longitudinal, that is, the respondents surveys at each moment in time are different than those in the next survey. This lack of longitudinal data means that scientists cannot make inferences about what caused the changes over time. They are just snapshots.

“It is no surprise that in most countries, trust in scientists was a stronger correlate of compliance with efforts to reduce pandemic spread, as government in many of the countries sampled during the period of data collection were actively and vocally against strong interventions (e.g. USA, Brazil), while other equivocated (UK). Scientists, on the other hand, were more consistent. In NZ, where the government has been consistent in advocating for stringent measures to prevent COVID-19 spread, trust in government has more effect on compliance than on average, whereas trust in scientists has below average effects (Figure 2). These data suggest that trust in government was more influential in supporting compliance in NZ than in other countries, where messaging from government has been less consistent.”

No conflict of interest